Why Am I Lonely?

As health problems go, loneliness is nothing to sneeze at.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are still reeling from the difficult emotions related to business lockdowns, mandatory facemask wearing and social distancing. These times felt quite lonely for many people. But even before the pandemic, the U.S. Surgeon General said Americans had already been suffering through a genuine epidemic of loneliness.

In 2018, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that more than 20 percent of Americans said they often felt lonely or socially isolated. In that same year, the United Kingdom appointed its first government minister of loneliness; an admission that this issue has become a public health emergency.

As health problems go, loneliness is nothing to sneeze at. It’s been associated with high blood pressure, cancer, dementia and coronary heart disease. It’s also been associated with a wide variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, aggressive behaviors and suicidal thoughts. A 2015 review of pertinent studies showed that people who were chronically lonely experienced a sizeable increase in the risk of premature death.

So, it’s clear that loneliness is not a good thing. To understand why it happens, and what we can do about it, it’s first necessary to define our terms. Though loneliness is closely related to the concept of social isolation, it is not the same thing. While isolated people have a provable shortage of human contact, lonely people – in a more significant way – hold the clear perception that they are isolated.

In other words, they sense a gap between the amount of connectedness they want, and the amount they feel they actually have. So, while one person may feel content living alone in a cave, another person could just as well feel lonely walking through a densely packed crowd in Chicago’s Union Station.

When viewed in this way, we can see that loneliness is partly about being alone – but, more important, about the way we feel about ourselves when we happen to be alone. Here, we can refer to a distinction that some Buddhist scholars have made between “hot loneliness” and “cool loneliness.” For Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and author, hot loneliness is an ancient neurotic impulse through which we associate being alone with hopelessness, an inability to sit still and analyze our emotions, and a sense of compulsion to find people or things who can take our blues away.

Chodron suggests that our natural human impulse to feel this kind of loneliness can be transformed, over time, by developing six practical skills that foster “cool loneliness.” First, she says we can learn how to mute the desire for quick fixes which, in her words, amount to lots of squirming and fussing in the search for things that might help us to cheer up. Second, we can work on becoming more content. In other words, we can learn to give up our belief that escaping a state of aloneness will somehow bring lasting happiness or joy. Next, she suggests that we avoid unnecessary activities, such as compulsively daydreaming about true romance, or magnifying tiny bits of gossip into major dramatic productions.

Fourth, Chodron suggests complete discipline, or the practice of returning at every conscious opportunity to the real activities of the present moment. Curbing addictive desires is another step one can take. Here, we resist the temptation to indulge in external treats – food, toys, or impulsive social or sexual encounters – that are pursued in a somewhat addictive manner. Finally, Chodron suggests that we avoid seeking security from our discursive thoughts or inner chatter. By mastering these tools of cool loneliness, Chodron says:

…we can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. [Instead,] we give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment.

Mastering these practices takes time and patience. Fortunately, people who feel lonely – who feel a lack of companionship, feel left out, or feel there’s no one they can turn to – can gain more immediate relief by working with a skilled psychotherapist.

For example, cognitive or behavioral therapies can help people to combat negative thoughts about being alone, or to gradually boost their levels of social engagement. Interpersonal therapy approaches can help a lonely person understand and eventually modify faulty communication styles that lead to further isolation. And psychodynamic therapies can help a person examine childhood patterns of interaction that could explain why they continue to feel lonely, at a subconscious level, long after becoming an adult.

If you feel lonely, and can’t seem to find your way back to calmer, steadier emotions, please contact our practice and speak with a therapist who can use some of the tools noted above to give you relief – right now, and for years to come.


Chodron, Pema (2021). Six Kinds of Loneliness. Lion’s Roar, November 3, https://www.lionsroar.com/six-kinds-of-loneliness/

Leland, James (2022). How Loneliness Is Damaging Our Health. The New York Times,

April 24. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/20/nyregion/loneliness-epidemic.html

Psychology Today (2022). Loneliness, Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/loneliness

Swartz, Holly (2019). Loneliness and Psychotherapy. The American Journal of Psychotherapy 72(4), 84. https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.72402#:~:text=Loneliness%20is%20a%20public%20health%20crisis%2C%20and%20psychotherapy,feel%20cut%20off%20or%20isolated%20from%20human%20connections.

Mike McCauley
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